A GUNMAN who massacred 49 people at a US nightclub pledged his allegiance to Islamic State as he spoke on the phone to negotiators, police have confirmed.
Officers blasted a hole in the wall of the Pulse club in Orlando, Florida, in a desperate effort to save revellers as Omar Mateen held hostages in a toilet at the gay nightclub.
John Mina, chief of police at the City of Orlando Police Department, said Mateen barricaded himself in a toilet with around four or five hostages after shooting some of his initial victims and called the police, speaking in a “cool and calm” voice with crisis negotiators.
When he spoke about “bomb vests, about explosives” and made threats of an “imminent loss of life”, police made the decision to blast through the wall with an armoured vehicle, which Mr Mina said saved “many, many lives”.
Mr Mina also confirmed that when Mateen was on the phone to officers “there was allegiance to the Islamic State”.
As the details emerged this afternoon, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury said Christians must “speak out in support of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and/or intersex) people” who have been “brutally targeted by the forces of evil”.
In a joint statement, John Sentamu and Justin Welby said: “We must pray, weep with those affected, support the bereaved, and love without qualification.
“The obligation to object to these acts of persecution, and to support those LGBTI people who are wickedly and cruelly killed and wounded, bereaved and traumatised, whether in Orlando or elsewhere, is an absolute call on our Christian discipleship.
“It arises from the unshakeable certainty of the gracious love of God for every human being.”
Authorities in Orlando confirmed that 49 people were killed in the shooting in the early hours of Sunday, with 53 others injured. All but one of the victims have been identified and the families of 24 have been informed.
Mateen, the 50th person to die, was killed by Swat officers when he opened fire at police after himself crawling out of the hole made to rescue the nightclubbers.
President Barack Obama called the massacre - the worst mass shooting in recent US history - an “act of terror”, while Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said: “We will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater.”
More than 300 people were inside the nightclub when the sound of gunfire was first heard just after 2am local time (7am British time).
The killer fired repeatedly before taking dozens of revellers hostage, leading to a stand-off lasting around three hours.
As Mateen, a 29-year-old bodybuilder of Afghan origin, held a small group in one toilet, around 15 to 20 people took cover in a second toilet opposite.
Speaking to reporters in Orlando, Mr Mina said: “Based on information made by the suspect and from the hostages and people inside, we believed further loss of life was imminent. I made the decision to commence the rescue operation and do the explosive breach.”
The explosion failed to fully penetrate the wall so police used an armoured vehicle to punch a hole through it, allowing them to rescue dozens of people.
Mateen fired on officers with a handgun and a “long gun”, thought to be an AR-15 rifle, after he emerged from the club, before being killed.
A third weapon was also found in his vehicle, authorities said.
All the victims’ bodies have now been removed from the club and FBI investigators are painstakingly working at the scene to reconstruct the night’s events.
Paul Wysopal, the FBI’s special agent in charge, said they had processed 100 leads so far.
US Attorney Lee Bentley said authorities had collected a “great amount” of both electronic and physical evidence as part of the criminal investigation.
He said: “We do not know yet whether anyone else will be charged in connection with this crime, but we have no reason to believe that anyone connected to this crime is placing the public in imminent danger at this time.
“But there is an investigation of other persons... if anyone else was involved in this crime they will be prosecuted.”
While Mateen pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) during the attack, IS has yet to officially claim responsibility.
Al-Bayan Radio, a media outlet for the extremist group, has called the killer “one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America”.
Orlando remains in a state of emergency, while the FBI is treating the massacre as an act of terrorism.
Mateen was known to the FBI after making inflammatory comments to co-workers about extremism in 2013. He was questioned twice and investigated again in 2014 over potential links to an American suicide bomber, but the probe was dropped after he was deemed to be low-risk.
However he was not under surveillance and the FBI said he had legally purchased two firearms within the last week.
An ex-wife described Mateen, reportedly a regular at an Islamic centre in Orlando, as a violent bodybuilder who had a history of abusing steroids and was bipolar.
His father Seddique Mir Mateen told NBC news his son had recently been angered after seeing two men kissing while out with his young son, and he denied the killings had a religious motive.
In defiance of the attack, residents in Orlando queued in their hundreds to donate blood to help those in hospital being treated for their injuries.
Members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community also held vigils in the state, scenes of solidarity which have been mirrored across the world.
In London, where a vigil will be held on Old Compton Street at 7pm on Monday, Mayor Sadiq Khan said he was “not complacent” that a similar massacre could happen in the UK and said he would do “what we can” to keep Londoners safe.
Prime Minister David Cameron has said he was “horrified” by the shootings, while Buckingham Palace said a personal message had been sent to Mr Obama saying the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were “shocked” by the events in Orlando.